Santa Clara County sheriff corruption trial begins

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith

The trial of Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, who faces several charges of misconduct and perjury, began on Wednesday as the beleaguered sheriff made her way into the courtroom.

In what will be the first public testimony regarding the charges, a civil grand jury charged Smith with five counts. She is accused of awarding concealed carry licenses to campaign donors, friends and other members of her inner circle. She is also accused of accepting tickets to a San Jose Sharks game and failed to report the gifts. Smith has denied all claims.

If found guilty of any of the five charges, Smith will be removed from office and barred from holding public office in the future. Even if she avoids a conviction, the sheriff's tenure will end this coming January. Smith opted not to run for reelection in the wake of the grand jury's accusations, leaving the race open for a runoff between former Palo Alto Police Chief Robert "Bob" Jonsen and retired captain for the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office Kevin Jensen.

"I'm thankful to those providing their civil service so justice may prevail," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Otto Lee, referring to the grand jury. "Regardless of the outcome of this trial, in 2023, the County of Santa Clara will have a new sheriff and we will be able to move forward from the challenges facing us in recent years."

Allen Ruby, Smith's attorney, said it was "too soon" to discuss the case as he walked into court. Smith also declined to comment. In March she told San Jose Spotlight the grand jury's charges were "specious at best."

"This case is really about political retribution," said Rich Robinson, Smith's former attorney and a San Jose Spotlight columnist who was recently subpoenaed to serve as a witness in the trial. "The sheriff has engaged in no criminal activity whatsoever."

At a pretrial hearing Tuesday, Ruby asked presiding Judge Nancy Fineman to drop the charges against his client, arguing they were rendered moot by the Supreme Court's June decision to strike the legal framework dictating how concealed carry licenses are approved.

San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Gabriel Markoff, who is prosecuting Smith on behalf of the state, said the court's ruling did not change the illegal nature of Smith's actions. Fineman ultimately threw out one of the six initial charges, which alleged that Smith failed to "make an investigation and determination of good cause," but allowed the remaining five to proceed.

The trial punctuates months of scrutiny regarding the sheriff's actions. The grand jury announced its formal accusations against Smith in December, following a months-long inquiry by the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors into the sheriff's management of the county jail system.

A spate of injuries at the jail involving inmates living with mental health issues, including the high-profile injury of Andrew Hogan, prompted the investigation. Hogan suffered significant brain trauma in August 2018 after repeatedly slamming his head into the side of a jail transport van.

The county settled with Hogan and his family for more than $10 million last year, and the board unanimously voted no confidence in Smith's leadership.

The California attorney general has opened an independent investigation into Smith's role in the jailhouse injuries, and the board of supervisors requested that the Fair Political Practices Commission investigate her.

Trial opening arguments are expected to begin next week.